Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What I Learned From Deconstructing A Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

I've heard some talk about the benefits of deconstructing a novel, so I decided to try it. And I wanted to share what I learned.

I scoured the Internet for blog posts on the subject of deconstructing a novel so I could learn how others went about it. I picked my favorite advice and came up with my own plan. I filled out a general paragraph for the overall story. I made a list of things to look for in each scene. Then I grabbed a stack on index cards and started reading. I chose the book The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson because I loved the story and wanted to see what I could learn from it.

My general paragraph:

The hero wants _________________________ (story goal) because _________________________ (his motivation for why he wants the goal) but ____________________________ (conflict for why he can't have his goal).

Here is my filled-in paragraph for The Rithmatist:

Joel wants to be a Rithmatist because it's noble and exciting and he thinks he could be a good one, but he missed his inception ceremony years ago and now he's too old to be tested.

Here is the list of things I looked for in each scene:

Scene #
Opening line
Characters present in the scene
Gist of what's happening
POV's goal for the scene
Author's goal for the scene
The reader reads on because...
The scene advances the story because...
Scene/chapter hook
Feeling it leaves me with

And here is how my first two cards looked for The Rithmatist.

Scene #: 1
Chapter: Prologue
Opening line: "Lilly's lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway."
Pages: 11-13 (3 pages)
POV: Lilly
Characters present in the scene: Lilly, an unnamed bad guy, and chalklings (fantasy creatures)
Date: unknown (The first time I read the book, I had assumed this scene happened before chapter one, but after I read the book, I realized it happened after chapter one.)
Setting/Location: Alternate America, early 1900s. A house in the city of Jamestown.
Gist of what's happening: A girl is being attacked by someone. She tries to defend herself with magic.
Conflict: A girl is being attacked.
POV's goal for the scene: Lilly wants to protect herself.
Author's goal for the scene: To show the bad guy and the magic at work, to show some of how the people live in this storyworld, and to plant this danger in the minds of the reader (I think, since chapter one opens in a rather non-exciting way).
The reader reads on because... we want to see what happened to Lilly.
The scene advances the story because... it shows that a crime took place and sets up how magic works for this story.
Chapter hook: "Lilly finally found her voice and screamed."
Feeling it leaves me with: Fear and curiosity

Scene #: 2
Chapter: 1
Opening line: "'Boring?' Joel demanded, stopping in place. 'You think the 1888 Crew-Choi duel was boring?'"
Pages: 19-23 (5 pages)
POV: Joel (our hero)
Characters present in the scene: Joel, Michael, and random students that pass by
Date: unknown
Location: School campus in Jamestown, outside, day
Gist of what's happening: Joel is talking about Rithmatics--he's obsessed with Rithmatics. And then Michael tells him he's not invited to his house for the summer.
Conflict: Michael doesn't care about Rithmatics, and he's not impressed with Joel's knowledge. / Michael doesn't want this embarrassing outsider at his house this summer when so many important kids will be there.
POV's goal for the scene: Joel wanted to convey how amazing the duel was, to get Michael as excited about Rithmatics as he is.
Author's goal for the scene: To show us who Joel is, to characterize him, to show his love of Rithmatics, to show more of how the magic works, and to show how Joel doesn't fit in.
The reader reads on because... we want to know more about Joel. We want to know what's going to happen to him next and learn more about Rithmatics. Michael might not be interested, but Joel has intrigued us with this unique magic system.
The scene advances the story because... it shows us that Joel is obsessed with Rithmatic magic---but he is not a Rithmatist. He doesn't have the magical ability to make his chalk drawings come to life. Thus the reader sympathizes with him. We like him. We want him to have what he wants. But he's in a no-win situation.
Scene hook: Well, he thought, it looks like it will be just me and Davis here all summer again. He sighed, then made his way to the campus office.
Feeling it leaves me with: Sad for Joel's lack of friends. The scene was endearing. I like him and want him not to be alone anymore.

1. Sympathetic heroes rock. The heroes from many bestselling novels have similar traits. They are orphans or come from broken homes. They are poor. They have few or no friends. They are different from everyone else and don't fit in. And they are rebellious in some way. For Joel, his father is dead and his mother works all the time to support them. He gets to go to school on scholarship. He has no real friends. He's obsessed with a magic he can't do and others think that's weird. Plus he's rebellious in that he has no business studying magic. He isn't a Rithmatist. He sneaks into Rithmatics classes, practices, and reads up on the magic---all at the risk of failing other classes.

2. Author's goals are fascinating to see unfold. When I consciously thought about the author's goal in each scene and how he delivered information to the reader, I was thrilled to see things unfold and understand his plan. (Not that I can read his mind, or anything, but I was able to make an educated guess as to what he was up to.)

3. Stories should start with some kind of action. I actually looked at several other novels, and they all started with action. And when chapter one didn't, a prologue was added that did start with action.

After finishing this project, I found it interesting to deconstruct one of my own books to see where my pacing, plot, and characterization could use some work. Now, please hear me. You can drive yourself crazy trying to make your books fit into some magical formula. And you can also waste so much time studying other novels, you never write your own. So, should you choose to venture into such a project, be careful. Watch how much time you spend on it and be prepared to call it quits. Also, you don't have to deconstruct full novels to learn. You can just do the first chapters of several books. Or the last chapters. Play around with it and see what helps you most.

Have you ever deconstructed a novel? If so, what book did you study and what did you learn from it? If you've never done this, what book might you want to deconstruct? 


  1. I never did it before, but maybe I might want to deconstruct 'The Chosen' by Chaim Potok. I'm reading it for English Class and it's really well-written, but I'm still not exactly sure why.
    I think the general paragraph is a great one to test if your own manuscript has those things, isn't it?

    1. Yes, it is, Arende. And deconstructing a novel will help you see how the story has been put together. That might be part of why you like The Chosen, but it also might be the way the author strings words into sentences. Or maybe a combination of both.

  2. Oh, I should try this with a couple books in the genre I write in. It would help a lot with my plotting just to see what others look like broken up.

    Thanks Jill!!

  3. I've heard of something like this and I think that's it's an interesting idea. I would like to try it for my book.

  4. Sounds like a great lesson to try.

  5. From Amo Libros:
    I've never deconstructed a novel like this, but when I was doing OYAN, I did look for some of the key elements Mr. S. mentioned in some of the novels I read. I did this especially for concepts I didn't understand, like how "disasters" and "dilemmas" are supposed to work. IF you're character is in a disaster, a real disaster, how are they supposed to keep going on their journey? "The Hobbit" really helped with this. Disaster: Run into a Wizard, possibly insult him, get an unwanted invitation to go on an Adventure (Inciting Incident). Disaster: Wizard and Dwarves turn up at house. Dilemma (neither option is desirable): Stay home and look like a "green grocer", or go on a Quest, face unknown dangers, and be though fierce. Bilbo chooses to go, which would be "Embracing Destiny". Disaster: Run into Trolls. Solution: after getting beaten about, Gandalf rescues them (disasters don't have to stay disasters). Small victory: get access to Trolls' treasure hoard.
    Next major disaster (the one which really helped me understand the Disaster/Dilemma concept), is getting caught by goblins as the travelers pass over the Misty Mountains (definitely a disaster). BUT, after a hair-raising escape through the tunnels, they come out on the other side of the Mountains, and are further along in their quest. Plus, as we learn later, the pass they were going to try to take quit working at some point across the mountains, so the Goblin tunnels really were the only way through. This example helped me understand what Mr. S. meant, and once I had worked out what the pattern looked like, I could see it in other books as well.

  6. I might try it sometime, at risk of overindulging the geeky I-love-analyzing-plot part of myself and spending waaay too much time on this. I already pay at least subconsciously pay attention to the plotting/writing of books I read, though. And the TVs and movies I watch. And the passages on standardized tests...

    Speaking of which, today I took the reading portion of a big state standardized test. The mechanics of the writing in the reading passage were, um...After I finished the questions, I just had to go through and edit. I don't think I've ever had so much fun on a standardized test before!

  7. I /love/ this book!!!!! He needs to write the next one…stupid cliffhanger!!
    This book is a perfect example for deconstructing novels. Thanks!